Powerful earthquake hits Turkey and Syria, killing more than 3,800 people

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ISTANBUL — A powerful earthquake struck Turkey and Syria before dawn on Monday, killing more than 3,800 people, destroying thousands of buildings and shattering lives in a region already rocked by war, a refugee crisis and economic distress.

The death toll and injured looked certain to rise as rescue teams battled rain and snow to find survivors and exhume bodies from the ruins, while families fearing aftershocks desperately tried to find shelter in cars, tents, factories and schools.

The earthquake, the strongest recorded in Turkey since 1939, reached a magnitude of 7.8, according to the United States Geological Survey, and was also felt in Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. A 7.5 aftershock shook the region again on Monday afternoon, complicating rescue efforts and terrifying millions of people living in the quake zone.

In the city of Adana, Turkey, Fatih Kaya stood in front of what had been the 16-story tower where her brother’s family lived. Now the building had collapsed into a giant mound of rubble that rescuers were digging up in search of survivors.

“I’m waiting to see if my brother and his wife will be taken away,” said Mr Kaya, 31. The bodies of her brother’s two children had already been found.

“I don’t know what else to do right now,” he said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in the capital, Ankara, on Monday: “We don’t know where the number of dead and injured can go.” He decreed seven days of national mourning.

The epicenter of the earthquake and major aftershock was near the city of Gaziantep in south-central Turkey. Early on Tuesday, the government reported that 2,379 deaths had been recorded in a region of Turkey that stretched more than 250 miles from the city of Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east. Several thousand others were injured, while the known toll increased in the evening.

In Syria, the death toll has exceeded 1,450, according to reports from the Health Ministry and rescuers in rebel-held areas. Hospitals filled with injured people in the cities of Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo.

Desperate family members dug for survivors with shovels and bare hands, while rescue teams used headlamps and searchlights in some places to dig through the night in the cold.

“It’s a race against time and hypothermia,” said Mikdat Kadioglu, professor of meteorology and disaster management at Istanbul Technical University. “People got caught in nightwear and were under the rubble for 17 hours,” he said.

The United Nations, European Union, United States, India, Britain, Israel, Russia and even war-torn Ukraine, among other countries, have rushed to send teams of search and rescue, dogs, medical teams and humanitarian aid. But it was clear that assessing the extent of the damage, counting the dead and rebuilding the homes and lives of those affected were only just beginning.

The earthquake hit Turkey at a difficult time in a particularly vulnerable area along the southern border with Syria. Alongside the region’s native Turkish population live many of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees, many of whom struggle to find work and live in dire poverty. And Turkey is grappling with high inflation that has eaten into family budgets and fueled frustration with the ruling party and its leader, Mr. Erdogan.

Mr Erdogan is seeking a new term in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14, and some polls had suggested a challenger from the political opposition could beat him.

His government was criticized in 2021 for what many saw as a poor response to wildfires in another part of the south. The effectiveness of his government’s response to the vast needs of earthquake survivors could affect how Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party rank in the polls.

Turkey, criss-crossed by multiple geological faults, has long been prone to earthquakes, and the government has put in place regulations aimed at making buildings safe. But the images of individual buildings collapsing in clouds of dust as those around them remained standing could raise questions about whether lax enforcement and corruption were involved.

On Monday morning in Adana, Tuba Sik, 46, stood in front of what had been her parents’ apartment building. She had even spent the night there during the weekend.

But now he was gone, and so were they, and she blamed poor construction for the disaster.

“The ground floor stores were constantly under construction,” she said. “With so much construction allowed, it was unavoidable.”

Throughout the day, the rescuers themselves were overwhelmed. One broke down in tears while carrying a young girl in pink leggings who had been pulled alive from the rubble in Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of the quake. Hugging her tightly, he collapsed in the snow a few feet from the destroyed building, as medical personnel crowded around. Right behind him, a father carried his young son, who did not appear injured. The father was also overwhelmed with emotion.

The quake hit northwestern Syria, where almost three million people displaced by the civil war were already experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Years of airstrikes and shelling had already left the infrastructure in a fragile state, with people living in makeshift shelters, tents and damaged buildings.

“What we have in Syria is an emergency within an emergency,” said Mark Kaye, spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, which has more than 1,000 local staff working in northwestern Syria.

The disaster area in northern Syria includes areas controlled by Turkish-backed anti-government rebels, in addition to areas controlled by the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The two sides remain technically at war, precluding the possibility of a united humanitarian response and complicating relief efforts.

When the quake hit, Ibrahim al-Khatib dragged his family out of their home in the town of Taftanaz in northwestern Syria, fearing it could collapse. They later learned that a collapsing wall elsewhere had injured his uncle and killed his 13-year-old cousin.

“The situation is still bad,” al-Khatib said, adding that many buildings had been weakened over time by the airstrikes. “People don’t dare to go home.

Monday’s first earthquake tied the strongest on record in Turkey, also at 7.8 in 1939.

In August 1999, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake that hit the city of Izmit in western Turkey killed more than 17,000 people.

Damage from Monday morning’s earthquake could top $1 billion, a report says estimate by the United States Geological Survey. The value of the Turkish lira fell before recovering slightly, and Turkish stock markets fell.

In addition to aid to Turkey promised by many countries and agencies, the Israeli government has said it intends to send aid to Syria, even though the two countries are officially in a state of war for decades and have no diplomatic relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a request for humanitarian aid had been received through diplomatic channels.

Russia is also considering sending relief workers to Syria, a longtime ally, and will discuss sending aid to Turkey, the Kremlin said.

In Turkish towns in the earthquake zone, old and new buildings have warped and residents have suddenly found themselves deprived of basic comforts.

A historic castle in Gaziantep, first built as a watchtower in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, was heavily damaged in the quake.

Residents were frantically looking for places to buy food and bread, but most shops were closed. Some families erected tents in open areas for sleeping, and the men cut wood to light fires to warm their families.

When the tremor started, 22-year-old Sungur Dogan and his relatives rolled under their beds for protection and said prayers until they stopped. Outside, they saw children who had fled their home naked.

“I broke down in tears,” he said. “Some people don’t have a car to get in.”

In the town of Pazarcik, which Turkey has called the epicenter of the first quake, television footage showed a partially collapsed building, its windows and balconies at a 45-degree angle to the ground. In the nearby mountains, rescuers dug up rubble covered in a thick layer of snow.

In Hatay province, the tremor damaged a port on the Mediterranean Sea and destroyed part of Iskenderun State Hospital, its floors collapsing in a tangle of concrete, pillows and beds. mutilated hospital, Turkish television footage showed. In another video, rescuers working on the rubble heard voices from under their feet. A sobbing spouse waited nearby, hoping those voices were those of his wife and mother.

For those who lost their homes in the earthquake, the reality of disrupted lives was just beginning to dawn.

When the earthquake hit, 20-year-old Zekican Bilgic and his mother, grandmother and two siblings fled their modest home by flashlight. Fear caused his grandmother’s blood pressure to spike, so they took her to the hospital, he said.

Mr. Bilgic had spent the rest of his day afraid to return to the house lest it collapse and trying to stay warm.

“It’s so cold here, we can’t take it anymore,” he said, standing by an outdoor log fire with other people whose homes were damaged. “In the evening it will be even colder.”

Ben Hubbard reported from Istanbul and Nimet Kirac from Adana, Turkey. Safak Timour And Gulsin Harman contributed reporting from Istanbul; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; And Raja Abdulrahim of Jerusalem.